The Great Vigil of Easter

Christ Harrowing Hell, Fra Angelico (15th c.). In the church of San Marco, Florence.

Christ Harrowing Hell, Fra Angelico (15th c.). In the church of San Marco, Florence.

The following sermon was preached at the Easter Vigil at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, on April 4th, 2015.  Music included Charpentier’s (1643-1704) Messe pour le Samedy de Pasques, and the anthem Gloria in excess Deo by Thomas Weelkes (c.1575-1623)

Collect: O God, who didst make this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in thy Church that spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship thee in sincerity and truth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Romans 6:3-11, Mark 16:1-8; (plus seven prophecies from the Old Testament at the beginning of the Great Vigil)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen:

One of the hardest things about being a priest is attending moments of pain and loss in people’s lives, and not having anything to say.  You can imagine the scenario: a person on their deathbed with a terrible disease, surrounded by their family, with a priest standing near.  The priest performs the last rites and stays to talk.  The family is grief-stricken and grateful for the visit.  But their questions aren’t answered.  They look to the priest and ask, either directly or indirectly, what do we make of all this?  How are we supposed to believe in a loving God now?  In those moments, there is really very little to say.

It’s not that there isn’t a huge body of theological reflection on suffering and healing.  Scripture is full of good advice and comforting words alike.  And of course the chief doctrines of our faith assert the resurrection of the dead, while not denying that death is still a force to be reckoned with.  The question of why a good God continues to allow suffering and death has produced more pages of writing, more philosophical and theological careers, more poetry and art, than probably any other question that human beings ask.

And yet in the moment itself, at that hospital bed, there are no words to say by way of explanation or meaning that will not sound hollow or disingenuous.  It is one of the hardest things about being a priest.

Why is this?  Why do words come up short?  Because usually, in those moments, families don’t want answers, even if they are asking questions.  What they want is the same thing you and I want in such moments: they and we both want our loved ones restored to us.  When we try to answer the strong yearning of love with mere words, they fail because they are only words; and they require more words to explain themselves; and more words about words, until there is nothing but meaningless noise.

In those moments words fail.   All that remains is the encounter with a dying person, and their suffering family.  There are no explanations.  There are no magic words.  There is only the act of the will, to stay near one another; only the will of our memory, to remember one another even when we depart this life.

But here’s the thing, and here’s what makes this an Easter sermon (in case you were worried!).  In that encounter, in that commitment to be near one another and to keep each other in our memories, there are the seeds of grace.  This is the stuff love is made of: resolute steadfastness, a refusal to forget one another even in the face of pain and loss; offering whatever we have to the one in need, from our financial support to our emotional reserve.  In the business of love we offer our whole selves to the person we love.  Couples married for decades sometimes tell me that just when they thought they knew everything about each other, their husband or wife does something that reveals untold depths still unplumbed.  In love, in this offering of one to another, there lies true knowledge: ever growing and ever deepening, until we hardly know ourselves apart from the ones we love; until we ourselves are constituted in the love of our family and friends; plumbing every deeper into this mystery of mutual self-giving.

Even so on Holy Saturday.  The paschal mystery of Our Lord’s sacrifice and death, of his resurrection and eternal life, is constituted precisely in this: that even on the cross, suffering as he was under the weight of untold sin and darkness, Jesus does not shrink from the encounter with his tormentors, or with death itself.  Even as they conspire to take his life, He freely offers it to his Father, and prays for their forgiveness.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do . . . Into your hands I commend my Spirit.”  Jesus refuses to leave the ones he loves, commending his Spirit to his Father in heaven even as he prepares to descend for our sake into Hades, to break the power of death and rescue those it holds captive.

Back in the hospital room, we often think of the person lying in bed as the one in need, and of course they are in many ways.  But it’s no coincidence that families are often reconciled while their mother or father or sister or brother is facing their last fight.  In those cases, it is often clear that the one who is dying is the one who is the minister and physician, not whomever shows up in a clerical collar or a doctor’s coat.  “Mom would have wanted it this way,” the family says, and long-standing grievances are forgiven.

On Holy Saturday, it is the same.  Yesterday, on Good Friday, we mourned the death of an innocent victim, and we engaged in some soul-searching to discern our complicity in his death.  Today, as we learn the news of his resurrection and hear the Angels’ greeting, we realize that we were the ones who were sick all along; and the Crucified Victim was the minister of reconciliation and healing.  Far from being chaplains and nurses at Christ’s cross, you and I are the dead and dying ones he came to visit, and by his visit raise us to share in his eternal life.  We are the objects of his will, the ones he refuses to abandon.  We are the ones whom he reconciles to one another and to God, even as he hung dying, and descended to the dead.

In the face of such love as this, words do fail.  But one word remains: that word is a name, and the name is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”  Here, at this Easter vigil, we celebrate that even death itself was not able to keep him from us. Tonight we celebrate that, by this victory, death itself is not able to keep us from him.

We have recalled our baptism, we have prayed the great Litany of the Saints, we have heard the great sweep of salvation across time and space.  Here in this place we are knit in one communion and fellowship with the resurrected Son of God.  Here in this moment, all are brought together in the beginning of eternal joy.  We are redeemed, death is put to flight, and creation is renewed.  Emmanuel, “God-with-us”; and, by his grace, Us-with-God forever.  Our Lord is risen from the dead, and there is now not a single place where God is not; not a single person consigned without hope to the silence of the grave.  All are caught up in that Word which was in the beginning with God: Emmanuel, God with us, us in God.

In a few moments we will come to the first mass of Easter.  Let this communion be for us the answer to the questions we ask, the fulfillment of our love’s yearning.  In it we will recall again Our Lord’s passion and death, his sacrifice of himself and his glorious resurrection.  But more than this, we are brought by the Holy Spirit to Our Lord’s table in heaven, and are constituted as his kingdom, his family, forever.  Here is the ground of our being, here is the beginning of all our knowledge, here is the kingdom of love, victorious over death.

Let us resolve to be near him as he is near to us, and let us resolve to love one another to the end.  So may we and all whom we love taste and see that the Lord is good, and know that his love abides forever.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.